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HENRY V – Temple Church, London.

unnamedYouth, war, peace and fragility leap from the stage and straight to the heart in Antic Disposition’s portrayal of Henry V. Set 500 years after the English victory at Agincourt, the British and French are once again at war in the fields of the north. This time, working together against the army of Germany “and such another neighbour” the two countries have been thrown together in a recovery hospital with the only book being a slim volume of Shakespeare’s play. Presented as a gift from one wounded Tommy to a French counterpart, it is decided to stage the play to keep the men occupied (with a little help from the camp’s nurses).

Though the play they present is slightly edited, we hit all the main points in the 2hr 10min run-time. King Harry, convinced of his right to rule in certain lands of France, gathers his troops and invades across the channel. Opposed by a snarky Dauphin and a ponderous French King, he exhorts his men to fight bravely and with respect to their opposite numbers. Building to the double climax of the Battle of Agincourt and the King’s marriage suit for Katharine of France, the victory of England over France is (spoiler alert) pretty comprehensive.

With the whole cast clad in WWI uniforms the audience viewpoint shifts continuously from that of one watching the Henry V performance as a fellow hospital patient, to the outer play, a commentary on the conditions of war young men face whether it be 1415 or 1915. (As a side note: beautiful attention to detail on the soldier’s uniforms and accessories make it very easy to buy into the concept of the whole play, real congratulations to the design team of John Risebero, Laura Rushton and Sophie Howard). Encouraging their fellow players after a shaky speech or congratulating them on a well turned performance, the camaraderie among the mixed teams of France and Britain is lovely. However, sweetness aside, this aspect can be tough to watch: the frequent reminders that the players are only a few hundred yards from one of the bloodiest battle-fronts the world has known, for example when one of the boys succumb to a fit of shell shock mid performance, are jarring.

There’s a hefty piece of thoughtful context on display here, and very consciously so. Antic Disposition’s Henry V was devised to mark the anniversaries of Antic Disposition (10 years), the Great War (100 years) and Agincourt itself (600 years) and melts all three (obviously focusing on the latter two) into an innovative piece of emotionally charged theatre. Watching Freddie Stewart as a young soldier playing Henry, looking steely eyed and vulnerable in the extreme, brings the youthful aspect of war home with a jagged blow. Followed by good performances from the rest of the company, and very well selected songs, there were a few tears flowing in the Temple Church’s chancel.

Charming and well executed, with a cast that mixes youth and experience, Antic Disposition’s Henry V a well crafted play in a great setting. It may not be the best Shakespeare performance you’ll ever see, but the whole play-within-a-play package is a memorable, affecting way to link the 600 year span of history and learn some emotional truths you just won’t get from the books.

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Reviewed 24/08/15

By Karl O’Doherty
@Karlodoherty

24th August – 5th September
Temple Church, London, EC4Y 7BB.

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